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Nutter at Mid-Term: Whatever Happened to the Reformer?

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By Michael Schaffer

Two years into the term of Mayor Michael Nutter, the mood among many of his most fervent onetime supporters verges on the despondent.

After a campaign that promised reform and renewal, the mayor has spent much of the last year taking heat from the very people who once embraced his promise of a clean break from old-fashioned Philadelphia politics: Editorial boards, business boosters, and machine-politics bashers--pillars of Nutter's 2007 winning coalition--have all taken their whacks at the guy.

"We wanted a fighter," says Brett Mandel, an unsuccessful candidate in last year's City Nutter pix.jpgController race and a long-time advocate for reducing Philadelphia's tax burden, once Nutter's major legislative priority. Unlike many other reform types, Mandel will voice his criticisms in public, but he echoes many private complaints.

"We thought he was one of us," Mandel said. "It turns out he's a better version of one of them."

At times, the ironies have been delicious. Councilman Nutter grabbed headlines--and even garnered a "Politician of the Year" award from Library Journal--by standing up against predecessor John F. Street's proposal to slash library hours. Mayor Nutter has found found himself under fire for his own plan to slash the budget by pruning the libraries.

Councilman Nutter delighted in municipal-budget nit-picking, using the annual hearings to skewer an administration he cast as unable to break with dysfunctional local traditions. As Mayor Nutter, he's been on the receiving end of the very same brickbats, notably over his recent decision not to appeal an arbitrator's decision awarding generous pay hikes to the Fraternal Order of Police. Critics called it a budget-busting cop-out (pun intended) before a politically influential union, which is the kind of argument Councilman Nutter once used.

"It's just unacceptable not to appeal that," says Bill Green, an at-large Democrat who occupies Nutter's old desk right next to the media table in City Council's chambers--and who has also adopted Nutter's old role as the hyper-critical scourge of the mayor's administration.

 

"The con is over"

And Nutter, who once benefited by implicit comparison with Street's imperious, aloof public style, now finds himself lambasted by Council members who call him high-handed and by civic boosters who say he's not up to the task of glad-handing in the name of Philadelphia. Last fall, after news broke that the Dad Vail Regatta was moving to New Jersey a particularly acidic Buzz Bissinger column in the previously Nutter-friendly op-ed page of the Philadelphia Inquirer declared the mayor a fraud. "The con is over," Bissinger wrote.

Even after the Regatta decided to stay put--and it turned out that accusations of its having been ignored by the mayor didn't hold water--the credit went not to Nutter but to U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the city's Democratic Party boss, who presided over the 11th-hour negotiations.

Fairly or not, the can-do legislator and down-to-earth dad of 2007's campaign ads, was cast as the can't-do mayor and the out-to-lunch executive of 2009's political wars.

Which brings up this question: Did Michael Nutter sell voters a bill of goods when he was running for mayor?

It depends on what voters thought they were buying. For all the promise of the candidate's TV spots--one ad showed the would-be mayor ripping the tower off City Hall and dumping out the hacks, crooks, and nincompoops--Nutter's candidacy rested on three basic themes: Ethical government, lower crime, and Nutter's own personal brand as a guy who had spent years working to make Philadelphia a better place for businesses to create jobs.

On themes one and two, there's little to criticize about Nutter's record as he begins his third year in office. His administration has been free from major ethical scandals: When reporters are writing pieces about whether or not a perceived threat against your managing director was serious enough to merit giving her a police escort, that's a pretty good sign that there aren't bigger allegations to focus on.

 

Ethics up, crime down

The ethics policies Nutter sponsored as a Councilman and embraced as a mayor have even created their own mini-backlash, as pols complain about overly persnickety rules governing political activity by public employees. And the definitive break in the mayor's relationship with City Council came when Nutter used his budget address to press for an end to the practice of giving members cars and access to the DROP retirement-incentive program--two long-standing reformist goals. He ultimately backed down from the fight, which many advisors think he never should have started, but it was hardly a business-as-usual demand, either.

Likewise, despite a dreadful national economy, crime in Philadelphia has not spiked alongside unemployment. Murder is down, as are most major crimes. Charles Ramsey, the former District of Columbia police chief who Nutter hired as commissioner, has become one of the most popular figures in the city.

From a political perspective, though, the problem with crime-control and good-government is that they are negative qualities: People care passionately about crime and corruption when they are rampant, but focus on other things when criminality--in the streets or in City Hall--recedes.

This leaves the brand that is Michael Nutter. A little more than a year away from the 2011 Democratic mayoral primary it has acquired some significant dings: The tax cutter has become the guy who tried to hike property taxes. The wonk who stood up to building trades unions has become the guy who has ducked fights with city workers. And the legislator who corralled colleagues into passing long-shot bills like 2006's smoking ban has become the mayor who can barely find a friend in City Council.

Does this sort of stuff matter to the general public? Maybe not: Most voters are more concerned with rec centers and snow removal, the basic stuff of local government. But for a mayor who won by only a plurality in the 2007 primary, a high level of disappointment among your admittedly small population of devotees is not good news.

"Crime is down," Mandel says. "The government certainly seems more ethical and there's a general, improved level of competence in the agencies. But we didn't get that rip the tower off and throw the bums out thing that we expected."

The question is: Was that ever a realistic expectation?

 

Tomorrow: Nutter's leadership style. He's a man who doesn't like to say "No."

 

 

 

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